Ric Ocasek’s death this past weekend hit me kinda hard. At this point I’m pretty inured to the musical icons I grew up with dying. Prince. Tom Petty. Heck, I even choked up a bit when I saw that Eddie Money passed away a few days prior. “Shakin’” will always be one of those songs that I scream along with when I’m alone and cannot be shamed for my awful, awful voice.
When I heard that Ric was gone, I needed to sit out on the porch for a while and be quiet. Then I put on Candy-O.
Ric was gut punch. For me music is an even more of a memory trigger than an aisle of Yankee Candle scents. And the deepest of those memories have a visual component:
–Sometimes it’s a movie I’ve conjured up in my head based on the lyrics. I do a harrowing Edmund Fitzgerald.
–Sometimes I imagine I’m up there performing a song. Usually that song is “Caribbean Queen.”
–Sometimes it’s the layout of the room where I listened to that song. Whenever I see ice glazing the trees, I’m back in our family room on Long Island during the ice storm of 1973 —the ice storm in The Ice Storm. The power was out for days; my dad was out off town on business; my mom was low on smokes. We huddled in sleeping bags and blankets in front of the fireplace. Our only entertainment was a very sturdy, pretty huge transistor radio clad in avocado green pleather. WABC 77 had this thing where they would play a particular song twice in a row, declaring it a “WABC repeat repeat RE-PEAT!” before starting it over. WABC’s chosen song, again and again, while the world froze? “Top of the World” by The Carpenters.
But so many of the musical memories lodged in my brain are tied to the promotional ephemera put out to promote the work. Album covers, videos, even those carnival prize mirrors —I stole three of them from my job at the Zoo Amusement Park: Mick Jagger’s lips, Pink Floyd’s Wall, and a psychedelic nightmare left over from REO Speedwagon’s “Riding the Storm Out” days. They fit perfectly one atop the other on the side of my stereo cabinet.
My intense memories of Ric Ocasek and The Cars stem from this non-musical side of music.
I will get thru the obvious one first. I lost my virginity on a Friday the 13th in front of the wooden altar of a 25” console television playing MTV and the video for “You Might Think.” It won the very first MTV award for best video. In it, Ric cute-stalks a model who looks like his famous model wife but is not his famous model wife thru an oversaturated fluorescent world set against a black background. Video effect follows video effect until Ric turns into a bug.
My face was maybe two feet from the screen. My field of vision filled with those little red, blue, and green dots which made up TV back then. I had to focus on something other than what was actually happening. All that physical activity guaranteed that the “You Might Think” video is stamped on my hippocampus. The psycho-sexual corn maze that is my backstory most definitely contains a wing decorated exactly like that video. And it’s full of little Ric Ocasek bugs in sexy sunglasses.
That stupid bug still pops into my brain at the most inopportune times.
But the Cars memory that sticks most in my head involves the six month process of listening to the entirety of Candy-O.
The first thing I did when I inherited my sister Erin’s blue plastic Radio Shack “Realistic” record player with two blue plastic speakers was get my 12 LPs for a penny from Columbia House. One of those was Candy-O.
It was a reach getting that album in the house. As my mom was looking thru the albums that mysteriously showed up in the mail despite her repeated warnings that ripping off Columbia House would go on my permanent record, she paused at Candy-O. She looked at me, back to the album, back to me, arched her eyebrow.
The cover was an illustration of a very curvy woman in a sheer leotard reclining atop the hood of a car with her eyes closed. She held her hand to her forehead, holding back her orange hair. Swooning? Just going thru the motions? Completely through with what’s going on? She was drawn by Vargas, the guy who did the illustrations for Playboy. I had seen an issue of Playboy before, and I was struck by how breasts had as much of a triangular aspect as a round one. This Vargas guy clearly knew breasts. If you squinted hard enough with you imagination, you could almost make out nipples thru the leotard.
To a 13 year old boy, “almost” is more than enough.
I could see my mom debating whether this album cover was appropriate for me to have up in my room. Alone. After all, she had forbade me from getting Rush’s “Permanent Waves,” the one with “Spirit of Radio,” at the mall because its cover was of a storm-lashed woman whose skirt had blown away to reveal the white triangle of forbidden panty.
Luckily, my mom decided that confiscating the album wasn’t worth the trouble. Still, her reaction let me know that I was on the right track. I was right to find this titillating. This was correct. It’s not like I was naturally attracted to only boobs; I also spent a good deal of time paging thru our giant Readers Digest Home Medical Dictionary at cross sections of human anatomy. I giggle every time I think of the words “fallopian” or “vas deferens.” It’s very confusing. To this day, I feel a tingle in my loins at medical cross-sections.
I knew my possession of the album was clearly suspect. I was on edge. Too much imagery like this and they would have no choice but to give me “the talk.” I lived in fear of “the talk.” I taught myself to shave to avoid “the talk.” It was very bloody.
Later, I offered to show the albums to my oldest sister Kallen. After she got done with her obligatory “I didn’t get a record player until…” complaint —unaware of how hand-me-downs work —she offered her takes on each album. Mostly, it was “cool” or “this?”
But her reaction to Candy-O sticks with me to this day. She picked up the sleeve, looked at me, back to the sleeve, and said, “This is too new wave.”
Because I was 13, and kinda odd, and paranoid, I took her comment to include a “…for you” tacked onto the end. Candy-O was too new wave for me!
Too new wave!
It had to definitely be too new wave for me. Kallen was eight years older than me. I trusted her taste in music.
It was her copy of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road that I learned to read by.
She had seen The Knack in the airport.
She told me that The Talking Heads were satanic. “How are they satanic?” I asked in return. She looked me right in the face, opened her eyes wide, and said, “Talking. Heads.” There was a dramatic pause and arched brow between each word so I could focus on what the name “Talking Heads” actually actually meant.
So, Kallen knew music, and, if she says something is too new wave for me, it’s “Too. New. Wave.” for me.
I definitely wasn’t ready for whatever adventure this cartoon woman on the hood of a car was going to take me on, but I knew I had to let her. But if I take the album upstairs to listen to right now, they’ll know. They’ll know.
It was a few days before I got up the courage to drop the needle on side one of Candy-O. It started with “Let’s Go.” I had heard that on the radio, and it was pretty new wave, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I steeled myself for the rest of the tracks. Would I emerge from the other side of this changed? A boy into a man? A normal person into a new wave person?
As the tracks went on, the sounds got weirder. It sounded like he Ric singing harmony with himself. Notes seemed to cut out quicker. I was moving fast. By the third track, “Double Life,” I was cresting the coaster. The Cars always seemed to know how crash one song into the next, and the three-track run of “Double Life,” “Shoo Be Doo,” and the title track that closes out the first side is probably my favorite three song run on any album.
“Double Life” is the slowest of the three, like they’re laying out a world for you. It builds, promising you the future. Ric, overdubbed with himself, keeps repeating “It’s all gonna happen to you.” Is this a promise? A threat? Maybe it’s a mantra? And what’s this all about a double life? What does Ric know? I obviously must be guilty of something. It’s all gonna happen to me. The song begins to fade out comfortably, lulling.
Then “Shoo Be Doo” slams in, quickly overtaking the softening repetition of “it’s all gonna happen to you.” It’s all electronic and bleep-blorp and distorted. Everything seems to slide away at an oblique angle, losing a dimension or two. I’m so worried. I don’t feel safe. Then Ric’s distorted voice, run thru all the filters and knobs, oversaturated and angular keeps repeating, “Just tell me what to do!”
Ric’s pleading gets answered abruptly when “Candy-O” just… starts, like you’re being pushed into a chair and spun around to face something you’ve needed to face all along. And that thing I needed was apparently was Candy-O. At first I thought Candy-O was the name of the woman on the album cover, but the Candy-O in the song is wearing a Sunday dress. Clearing a sheer leotard is not a Sunday dress. This was supposed to be clarifying, but it’s more confusing. Now Ric wants me to “homogenize” and “decentralize.”
By the time Side One was done, I was buffeted and confused. I was scared. I didn’t like this feeling.
It was too new wave for me.
I put the album back in its sleeve. I sat in silence and closed my eyes. I still could hear discordant notes as my brain ran the basic ambient neighborhood noise thru whatever machine they used for “Shoo Be Doo.” The blue wood paneling in my bedroom pulsed. I had to close my eyes and lay back on the bed. I fell asleep for three hours.
I did not listen to Side Two that day. It would be many months and a move from Virginia Beach to Ohio before I got up the courage to put it on. Sometimes I would pick up the sleeve, look at the sheer leotard, maybe shift my view in hopes that would make nipples appear, read the track names. But I never put the album on. It taunted me. If I wanted to be bullied, I’d just go to school. I didn’t need some album cover telling me I couldn’t handle things.
When I finally ripped off the bandage and did listen, it was a great non-event. I had built it up and built it up so much that when it finally happened, there was no way it could be as life-altering as advertised –please see above anecdote about “You Might Think”
Side Two was new wave, but definitely not too new wave. It was more on par with “Let’s Go,” a weirdness I could handle. Mostly, it just wasn’t as good as Side One. I’d like to say I learned an important lesson and never hesitated because I was worried that other would think me “too new wave,” but that’s definitely not the case. If anything, Ric’s death has saddened me, not because of any great musical memories per se, but because it’s highlighted something I feel has always held me back.
Stupid bug in sunglasses making me all introspective.